Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Colby Access Only)


Colby College. Science, Technology and Society Program


James R. Fleming

Second Advisor

Keith Peterson


Are Your Genes Your Destiny?: Essentialism in Popular Science The authoritative voice of science, and of the scientist, has remained a powerful source of social commentary for popular media outlets ranging from The New York Times to People Magazine. Indeed, the belief in the objectivity of science and its ability to help us organize the chaotic world around is so seamlessly injected into our culture that the lines between opinion and objectivity can be erased. Yet seams can indeed be detected when articles originally published in scientific journals are translated, or commodified, to sell a story in the popular press. Popular articles often rely on the back-­‐story of a scientific breakthrough, or develop an emotional portrait of the scientist so readers can connect in some way to the scientific narrative. Inevitably, what may have begun as an article on “objective science” becomes vulnerable to outside ideologies. It is at this crossroad between the socially popular and the scientific, that the tension between society and science meet, and is transformed, for the reading public. And, no topic is untouchable, or immune, to a hidden curriculum. Take, for example, the January 201o cover of Time Magazine (Image 1). A colorful, unzipped helicase is featured prominently on the cover next to a title which reads, “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny: The new science of epigenetics reveals how the choices you make can change your genes – and those of your kids.”1 The article describes the path-­‐breaking new advances in the field of epigenetics, which is the study of the heritable changes in gene expression that do not influence the underlying genetic code. Diet, smoking, and stress can all cause epigenetic markers to express “bad genes.” Simply, one’s environment can actually change how you are biologically expressed. For many readers, this radical statement about the instability of one’s genetic expression altered how we think about our own autonomy in relation to our dependence on our environment. Suddenly, the historically contested nature vs. nurture dichotomy was publicly fused: one’s nurture could change one’s nature. A patron of Time Magazine does not need to be a scholar of Descartes to understand that the conceptions about one’s own agency and fixedness of one’s identities were in question. Nearly twenty years before the Time article on epigenetics, a very different scientific breakthrough was commanding the attention of readers of popular magazines: the gay brain, as described by neurobiologist, Dr. Simon LeVay. The emotional, political, and religious tension surrounding the politics of sexuality and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) rights has led to a watershed of varied explanations for human sexuality. And yet, rarely do we consider the implications of scientific experiments on how and why, we justify or reject the rights of others. This thesis presents a close analysis of the popular media response to the work of Dr. Simon LeVay between the years 1991 and 2011, as the popular press grappled with his biological explanation for sexual expression. In no way do I wish to prove or disprove the assumed biological basis for sexuality; instead my argument relies on an analysis of the philosophical ramifications of such assumptions. Instead, I will provide a model that incorporates both the social, and the biological, in order to make transparent the dangers of fully committing to an ideological extreme. Explanations for the causes of homosexuality tend to differ ideologically between some of the sciences, which support a more essentialized view of sexuality with a stricter binary model of straight versus gay, and gender studies programs, which proclaim that a fluid, socially constructed account of sexuality is more accurate to the lived experience of queer people. LeVay himself situates his findings within the realm of the political, and suggests, “not that scientists who work in the field are necessarily committed to any particular social or political agenda, but whether they are or not, their findings will inevitably be used by others in ongoing public debate about homosexuality and gay rights.” Thus, I am ever more determined to look critically at the ideological implications of the work of scientists such as Simon LeVay, since their research’s social impact is very real. For example, in the February 1996 edition of The Advocate, a popular LGBTQ magazine, a poll concluded that sixty percent of respondents believed that “it would mostly help gay and lesbian rights if homosexuality were found to be biologically determined.” This assumption by pollers was consistent with an earlier study conducted in 1992 that showed that voters were more likely to vote for gay rights if they believed in a biological basis for homosexuality instead of a social explanation.4 Not only are the social politics of queer people impacted by the dissemination of queer popular science, but the identity politics of queer people are impacted as well. Another poll in The Advocate concluded that over ninety percent of gay men believed that they were born gay while less than four percent believed that choice came into the equation at all.5 Thus, the argument for a purely social constructivist account of sexuality has long been lost in the mainstream argument for American LGBTQ equality. Ingrained in these assumptions lies a very important question: why should the biological status of a human carry any moral weight in determining that person’s worth? Of equal importance, how are scientific studies leveraged in the popular press to inform the populace of how to place value onto others, and onto ourselves? My first chapter provides a summary of the immediate media responses to Simon LeVay’s controversial 1991 publication in Science. I consider the ways in which the authors of the articles validate LeVay’s hypothesis and commit to an essentialist account of homosexuality. My second chapter is an in depth analysis of the limits of social constructivism and essentialism. I suggest that only once the biopolitical and the social are combined in one model can sexuality and science effectively inform the other. My conclusion defends explanations of sexual orientation that are open to social influences. I claim that providing only essentialist accounts of sexuality is politically limiting both in terms of identity politics and legal accounts of queer rights.


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Simon LeVay, gay rights, epigenetics

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